His Secret War

The man would have to be insane to assume she was plotting in the woods with strangers. However, she wouldn't be so crass as to tell their secrets. What she wanted was the truth, not to get people killed.

Alessandra shook her head softly as she rose to her feet and brushed her hands over her skirts. "It's all right, I understand. ...I can't stay, however. They're waiting for me and I've already been out longer than I promised. If they come looking for me, you'll all be in so much trouble." She glanced at the trees around them. The sun was already set in the distance, so the forest was pitch black. All but this small little clearing with the fire.

Looking embarrassed, she gestured at the trees. "I won't ask you to escort me back. But can you tell me the way..?"
Alistair sighed and stood up with her. Letting her go now seemed unwise, but he wasn't going to take a lady hostage. If she gave them away, he'd just have to find someplace else in the forest to hide. Or, perhaps his plan to hide as a peasant would have to take action sooner. One way or the other, he'd know what to do.

"I'll take you back to the canopy where we met and then I'll point you in the right way."

Since it was dark, he gingerly grabbed her by the hand after removing his gloves and making sure his hands were acceptably clean. He wanted no broken ankles in this dark forest. He brought her back to the tree and pointed a finger to the way she came and said,

"Head that way and don't turn until you find an area where there's a path and a sign. There will be lanterns to light your way..." He sounded sad that she was leaving, but she had things to do... So as assumed.
There was something intimate about holding a man's hand while walking in the moonlight. Though she had to be mindful of her feet, she spent most of the time examining his face. As if trying to decipher what she thought of him.

Once they reached the tree, Alessandra released his hand and took a few steps in the direction he pointed her. But she paused, nibbling on her bottom lip with indecision. Finally she turned around and cast a wide smile.

"I am going to come back tomorrow. To return your flute." Slipping it out of her sleeve to show him, her smile turned wider. Somehow during their conversation of their walk she had managed to snag it out of his quiver without notice. "Wait for me!"

Picking up her skirts, she spun around to run home!
Alistair couldn't fight the smile that plastered on to his face, unfamiliar warmth settling into his chest when she said she'd return. He watched as she slipped his flute from her sleeve, his smile disappearing while he stared with amazement. If she managed to do that, she'd be a better thief than the rest of them. Then again, he was distracted by her and his friends.

"I'll be here. Thanks for letting me stay in your forest!" he called back, waving as she ran off to the castle.

He then walked back to where his friends were to sleep through the night, his mind reflecting all that happened today. He would of liked to play some music before falling asleep, but let nature lull him for tonight.
Alessandra managed to find the path and her way back home, where she was greeted by both relieved and very furious people. No one asks how she managed to get herself lost and find her way back, though there was some worry when she refused dinner. She excused herself early to bed before anyone decided to ask her more questions.

Morning couldn't come quickly enough for her. At the crack of dawn, Alessandra was already out of bed and dressed. A simple dress in a warm copper color, she wouldn't stand out too much if she were leave the castle and socialize. Whether it was walking in the forest or off to visit the village. Something she had decided would be a good idea. If the villagers were suffering and she was about to be there Queen, she needed to see for herself how bad things were.

"M'lady it's time to-... You are awake!" The older plump woman who bustled in to the room looked surprised to find Alessandra already up and out of bed. Standing at the mirror brushing her hair.

"Good morning Hilda! Did you know that Ivan has a brother? I wonder why he-" her chattering cut short when a maid just entering the room with a tray of tea dropped it on the floor. The woman looked completely horrified. Alessandra set down her brush to kneel and help pick up the pieces of porcelain. "Did I say something wrong...?

"N-no, my lady. It's just that... that we aren't supposed to speak about His Majesty's brother."

This shouldn't have come as a surprise to her, considering the conversation she had last night. Still, Alessandra looked confused. "Why not? This castle did belong to him, didn't it?"

Now the younger woman looked even more startled. "I- I'm not supposed to say! Um, excuse me!" With everything picked up from the floor, the woman was snatching up the tray and escaping the room before anything else was asked.

Hilda had her hands resting on her hips, giving a disapproving glare. "M'lady, you promised not to torment with your questions..!"

Alessandra cast a sheepish expression. A woman wasn't supposed to ask too many questions, and Hilda advised her not to do anything that might ruin her chances of marrying a future King and living comfortably. But a world without learning new things was a boring one indeed.

"I was just curious is all. ...I think I am going to visit the village today. And this time I will come back before dark!" she added before Hilda started protesting. In fact, Alessandra was waving her fingers and running off before her overzealous guardian tried to dissuade her.

She made it all the way out of the castle and well down the street when a pair of the castle guards decided to get in her way. "Lady Alessandra."

"I am heading to the village. ..is that all right?" Not that she felt she needed to ask, but they weren't standing aside.

"We're afraid we can't let you visit the village. It's dangerous for a Lady and His Majesty has ordered us to keep you at the castle."

"Can you not escort me to the village? I should be safe with a pair of his strongest guard with me."

Both men look pleased at the compliment but neither were budging. "No, my lady. That's not possible."

"Very well, then." Thought Alessandra was tempted to just dodge around them and start running, they were liable to catch up with her quick. Luckily, there were other ways to pay a visit to the village. She turned back for the castle, but instead of returning inside, she circled off towards the forest again.

Following the path, she looked carefully for that place she veered off from last evening. Looking for the tree where she would meet Alistair!
"Mi'Lord! Time ta wake up!"

Alistair's eyes popped open when he was being shook by Drake, a foul smell filling his nostrils. This man seriously needed something for his bad breath... Instead of saying so, Alistair made a half smile and reached up to Drake's shoulder, using it as a tool to help him get up. The man grinned and stood back when his commander stood, making a bow and saying good morning.

"Thank you for waking me, Drake. Just in time, too."

Alistair smoothed out his clothes and rolled his blanket up, tucking it closer to the fire pit where there were other fabrics and supplies. He went to a sparkling lake and dipped his hands in, splashing the water on to his face to help rid of the grogginess. He dried his face with his sleeve and then asked,

"Did the others deliver yesterday's 'earnings' this morning?"

Drake nodded and said, "Aye. I expect they're on their way back."

He smiled to his friend, pleased to hear this. He could imagine the looks on his peoples' faces when they'd find the riches in that secret place, prepared to pay taxes and buy groceries.

"Good then. Go to them and bathe, will you? All of you. We'll meet back here later."

Drake chuckled and departed without another sentence, leaving Alistair to himself. He went ahead to the tree where he promised to be Alessandra. He wanted a bath as well, but preferred to do that in privacy... So tonight, perhaps, or tomorrow.

Alistair shrugged it off for later and leaned his back against the tree trunk, his head also laying back so he could gaze at the many branches and leaves up above.
Finding her way around in the daytime was much easier than it had been last night. It helped that she left herself little clues, by kicking a rock here and there or snapping a twig. Alessandra was more than pleased to find Alistair already waiting at the tree. She never told him a time to be there and it pleased her to know he showed up nice and early just in case.

Clasping her hands behind her back, Alessandra tip toed quietly too the tree, hoping he hadn't noticed her arrival. Sneaking behind it, she reached out to tap him lightly on the shoulder, then duck away out of sight again.
He could have sworn he saw something copper coloured go past him. While he pondered whether or not he saw anything at all, he felt a tap on his shoulder, causing him to spin his head in the direction of it. An eyebrow arched itself, a smirk playing to his lips when he figured out someone was playing a game with him. He doubted it was one of his friends... They were asked to bathe and would have tackled him instead of touch his shoulder.

Alistair peeked over the tree, which happened to be the area his name was carved. He wasn't certain if she was there or not, but he suspected she was somewhere close by.

"Good morning?"

His attention then went up to the tree where he saw a nest with a mother bird. Ever since he had to make nature his home, he became more fond and appreciative of it. Slowly, he realized he was letting his guard down and his head went back to the tree with hopes he didn't lose this game yet.
Her hand covered her mouth as she tried to hide her giggling. She eased around the trunk when he moved, just staying out of sight. When he turned back again, she poked his other shoulder.

"Good morning, Prince of Thieves." she said with some amusement. Still staying hidden from view. "What say you to this forest spirit? She may bestow on you a gift if you say the right words..." The gift, of course, would be his flute returned. It was currently tucked safely away under her skirt. Alessandra didn't want anyone to find it or realize she had spoken to anyone outside of the castle just yet.
He turned to face her and removed his hat before he bowed, a handsome smile on his face. A gift? She had to mean his flute. He held his bow while he gave it some thought, returning the hat to his head before returning to normal posture. Alessandra looked so much prettier today... It was probably because it was daylight and he had less thoughts troubling him this morning. The rays of sunshine lit up her features nicely, even with the canopy shading some areas here.

"The Forest Spirit is looking beautiful today and I am blessed to be in her presence. Perhaps I can play a song for her?"

Alistair hoped he charmed her at least a little bit. He enjoyed playing music for women and especially liked talking with her.
Alessandra feigned giving it deep consideration. From cross her arms to tapping her chin as her eyes stared up at the canopy above. Pacing back and forth with her skirts swishing at her feet added to the thoughtful effect.

"A compliment and a song? I might be persuaded." He was so charming, and despite knowing he was covered in dirt there was still those subtle handsome features. Though she was to be married, it couldn't hurt to appreciate his features. The few times she saw Ivan, she had thought he was handsome too. ...but there were small differences. Alistair was so much more approachable.

Her thoughts reminded her about her quest. A small frown drawing across her face. "I wanted to ask a favor. Will you take me to see the village? Then I will return your flute to you and you could play me a song." After all, he offered! She wouldn't pass on the opportunity!
Alistair watched her, amused with her response. She was so much fun with the way she gave his answer thought, but when she frowned with a question, his face of happiness transformed into thoughtfulness. Was she not allowed to see the village herself? After all, she was given this forest as a present! It was just like his brother to hide his dirty deeds from someone...

"As you wish, my dear. I should disguise myself. I'm a wanted man after all, and the villagers don't even know I'm around."

He two fingers to his lips while he thought of what to wear, disappearing into the trees and returning hastily with a tattered cloak one of his men usually wore. It would not only hide him, but his weapons too. He draped it over himself and scrunched his nose, disgusted by the mix of scents it had. Pine, animal fur, food, probably even body fluids. He hoped this wouldn't displease her too much, after all the odor was stronger to him. It was worth it to protect their lives.

When he was ready, he gave a look of sorrow before speaking, "The people are meek but hopeful, with high spirits because they believe as long as they're alive, someone can rescue them. Especially the children! So do your best to smile for the ones who look to you. It helps a lot."

Alistair patted two small bags of coins he had hooked to his belt, intending to deliver them to a specific home where a mother, an ill father and five children lived. He removed the bags so they wouldn't make too much noise with his footsteps and slide them into the bottom of his quiver.
Alessandra did rest a hand on her cheek, giving his cloak a raised eyebrow. It didn't quite offend her senses, but it wasn't the most becoming thing. Unfortunately even she understand the need for a disguise for a wanted man.

His words about the village immediately distracted her, though! The way he spoke of them warmed her. He was fond of the people and genuinely cared about their well being. It was so rare to meet someone of royal blood that cared more about their people than their pockets.

So excited to get moving, Alessandra was bouncing lightly on her feet. "I promise I will smile for anyone that looks! Lets get going, I really want to see the village!"
The excitement she showed for visiting the village had him a tad shocked, but it delighted him to see she was eager to put happiness in the hearts of the people she bypassed. He walked along with her, spending that time thinking about what song he'd play for her when he got his flute back.

As the houses came into view, it displayed a very plain and depressing image. There weren't many people walking from shop to shop; some of the shops were even boarded up because they were out of business. Anyone outside was sitting against the houses with something wrapped around them to keep warm because the hunger left them chilly. Although the aura was negative, there were a few who walked along with their children as they pretended to be heroes rescuing the town from its poverty.

The sight made him sad every time but he was proud of his people for keeping confident. He pulled up his hood slowly, one of his eyes squinting. His hair was now contaminated and that was taking it too far...

With Alessandra by his side, they entered the village. He was satisfied no guards were anywhere nearby, but he expected there to be a tax collector somewhere. He nodded his head to a woman that walked by him with a single loaf of bread in her basket, a few coins being dropped into it quietly without her noticing.

The house he intended to visit was not far from where they were. They had a window open all the time because it was too broken to shut properly, so he expected to set the bags through there.
Walking through the village, Alessandra was faced with the exact opposite of what she was expected. Sure, she was told that the taxes were rough of them... but she hadn't thought it was quite this bad! Buildings were practically falling apart. Most of the villagers didn't even have decent clothing, only garbed in tattered and patched fabrics. Worse was how ill-fed they were. She could see just by sight and that meant these people must have been starving for weeks to have lost so much weight. This was not the way things were supposed to be done.

She was going to ask another question when something small and sniffling crashed in to her legs. A little girl clearly running from some other boys (who were now hiding behind a corner and staring) blinked up at her teary eyed and startled. Alessandra knelt on the ground and caught her before she escape.

"What's the matter now? Pretty little girls shouldn't have to cry."

The girl sniffled again and without a word lifted up a small rag doll. The head was nearly about to fall off and it's stuffing was trying to escape.

"Ah, I see. A grave injury..." Giving it some thought, Alessandra pulled one of the earrings from her ear and twisted the beads from it until she got just the thing needle part. Her hands moved down to the hem of her skirt where it look a little more work to pull loose a ribbon. Taking the doll from the girl, she carefully stitching the head back to the torso, even tying up the ribbon like a nice little bow once it was good and secure.

"There we go! Now, you will have to take good care of her for at least a week while she heals. Can you do that?"

The little girl nodded quickly, clutching the doll to her chest. She offered a big toothless smile before she ran off and disappeared.

Alessandra stood again, dusting off her skirt as she rejoined Alistair. ...it was so much harder to smile now!
Alistair watched Alessandra with amazement as she found a solution to the little girl's dying doll. She even gave up a piece of jewelry and a part from her dress! He was smiling the entire time within the shadows of his hood, a hand patting the girl on the head as she ran past him. When Alessandra joined back up with him, he said quietly,

"You're so kind. Probably the nicest thing anyone's done for that girl in a long time."

Before he could confront anyone suspicious, he ran to a house that was behind him. The window was now covered with a sheet since it could not close anymore. It didn't stop him from reaching in and setting two little bags of coins on the kitchen table. They were filled with only gold so they could afford a little more than usual.

"This family's kind enough to take care of our mother, even though they have an ill father and five children..." he explained to her, looking to the castle when he said our. "So I give some extra to help them."

Alistair could remember when his father died and he had to take charge... He allowed his mother to continue living in the castle, keeping her taken care of; even Ivan was treated royally as he deserved. Now that his task was complete, he left the rest of the journey to Alessandra since she wanted to explore. He took notice that she was finding it hard to smile, yet she was staying strong.
Alessandra couldn't hide the look of surprise on her face when Alistair told her about his mother. The villagers were caring for her, and she obviously wasn't at the castle. In fact, as far as she was supposed to think, both of Ivan's parents were long dead!

"It's good that you still take care of her even now." she responded. Her anger was being held carefully in check. After all, he was not the one she was angry with. Alessandra led the way as they walked around the village. All that she saw, she put to a mental checklist. The well needed repairs. The roads. Homes in shambles. She suspected if they traveled farther out of the village, the farms would be in bad conditions too. Could the people even afford to feed their animals if they couldn't feed themselves?

Once she had walked the entire village, she had seen more than enough. Maybe Ivan just didn't know how badly the taxes were affecting everyone. Without seeing it, it could be easy to assume it's not as bad as it sounded. Surely, she could convince him otherwise.

"I think.. I've seen enough of this. Please take me home before I do something reckless." ...like pick up a sword and join bandits in the forest! She could see why they did it!
The walk through the village was weighing heavily on his heart, making him all the more determined to put his plan into action. He wished he could just do it right now or storm in the castle to throw his brother out the highest window. Alistair didn't genuinely want to kill his brother, a punch to the head would suffice.

When a tax collector was passing by, Alistair could see a large bag on his belt filled with coins. He eyed it for a moment, later deciding he couldn't snatch it. He would of liked to cut a whole in it so the change could spill out, but they would surely make a lot of noise to make him notice. Alistair would have to wait for another opportunity or plan a secret invasion on the castle where he knew Ivan stored his riches.

He caught up with the lady so they wouldn't separate. As Alessandra asked, he escorted her back home, keeping their profile low so she'd not get in trouble and he'd not get arrested. Although, he was certain he'd be able to escape their clutches before they could tie anything around his wrists.

They arrived at the door she'd normally use to secretly rush into the forest and he gazed at her through the darkness of his hood. A hand took hers and rose it to his face so he could plant a kiss to the top to say farewell. He then turned around to head back to the forest, his footsteps slow as he pretended to act injured.
Alessandra watched as he disappeared in to the trees, a small girlish grin on her face. Despite the day, that one gesture warmed her. Once he was well out of sight, she realized she never returned his flute to him. Her grin went wider. She'd be able to see him again tomorrow and get the song he promised her.

Slipping inside, she was careful not to run in to anyone. She almost made it to her room when -

"M'lady Alessandra!" Hilda's motherly tone had her stopping dead in her tracks. She knew that tone well. She was about to get a lecture, and she was sure she didn't deserve it this time!

"Now, Hilda, I told you I was going to visit the village today and I kept my promise to come back before dark. You can't be angry with me!"

Hilda just huffed. The older woman looked from side to side before she ushered Alessandra in to her room. The door was latched quietly behind them. "You shouldn't have gone to the village, m'lady. I've been speaking with the servants here at the castle... There's rumors..."

Seeing as she was going to be lectured anyway, Alessandra moved to the mirror to clean herself up before she went to speak with her fiance. "Would it be the ones about a band of thieves in the forest, a mysterious hero, or about my Fiance and all of his secrets?"

"M'lady please! Don't speak so brashly!" Hilda hissed back. She seemed to think someone might have been listening in, with the way she was so nervous. "The servants say it's forbidden to speak about His Majesty's family. And you were not supposed to visit the village at all. It's unsafe and-"

"And I would notice that countless of people are starving from over taxing? Heaven forbid." She mentally thanked Hilda for reminding her just how mad she was. This discussion with Ivan just couldn't wait. After making sure her face was freshly washed and her hair brushed neat, Alessandra was moving around Hilda to get to the door. "I am going to speak with him. ...oh please don't make that face! I'm sure he'll understand once I speak to him."

Alessandra didn't leave any room for Hilda to continue arguing. She already exited the room, heading down the hallway to meet Ivan in his own chambers.
The tax collector Alistair saw earlier walked out of one of Ivan's room, a satisfactory look on his face. Ivan walked out of the room not too long after, watching his collector exit, and then saw Alessandra walking towards him in the hallway. His features were a lot like Alistair's, he just looked younger and his hair was a darker brown instead of sienna.

He spread his arms, expecting her to give him a hug and a kiss when she got closer to him. There was a wide smile on his face, which somehow managed to look devious every time. There was inescapable wickedness in his features that no one ever dared point out to him.

"My dear, I apologize for being so busy. How do you like your new home?"


Meanwhile, Alistair was back in the forest, tossing the tattered cloak back to his men and instructing them to wash it. Repairing it seemed unnecessary, since it added a nice touch to his disguise as an injured poor man. His helpers were all fresh and clean, their hair still damp and their skin still pruned.

"I was just in the village... It's getting worse there. You three work on our plan and Drake, you come with me."

Drake followed Alistair after grabbing a couple of apples to eat and some slices of bread the men managed to smuggle. He ate along the way, explaining to Drake that there would be a carriage passing through to visit Ivan for the day. They were waiting in the thicket with the path in front of them, Alistair sitting up in a tree with an arrow pulled back with his bow. It was ready to fire when the carriage passed through, while Drake was prepared to rob the rich man who was inside.

When he heard hooves clopping closer to them, he launched the arrow to the grounf, frightening the horse so it would stop, neigh and go out of control with its passenger. Drake smiled hugely when he saw they were successful and opened the carriage door, screaming,

"Yer under attack! Get out and run, sir, run!"

Terrified by the massive man telling him to run and the second arrow piercing through the hood of his carriage, he threw himself out and started running in the direction he came. Drake hastily gathered all the sacks of gold and jewels, rushing into the forest where Alistair would meet him.